More than 5,000 Twitter bot accounts have been suspended after suddenly and without explanation shifting from posting pro-Saudi messages to echoing Donald Trump’s attacks on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report as a “RussiaGate hoax.”
As Ars Technica reported, the accounts had all only posted three or four times in the past and were connected to a network that promoted Saudi Arabia online. The accounts were suspended for violating the site’s rules, a Twitter spokeswoman told the outlet. The spokeswoman said it is difficult to determine who is in control of the bots, but if the site determines that it was a “state-backed activity” it would be disclosed as part of the site’s operations archive.
Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said that the effort was meant to boost the visibility of Trump-supporting hashtags that attack the Russia report. They used hashtags like #RussiaGate, which the report noted has been used by fervent Trump supporters like Sean Hannity in attacking the findings of the Russia report. Watts, who has testified to Congress about Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election by manipulating social media, said that the recent effort was clearly meant for an American audience.
There was more than simply pushing hashtags, the report noted. The original Twitter account that was boosted by the bot accounts was re-named to make it appear to be a legitimate news outlet called The Globus, a now-defunct site that had posted a series of headlines presenting positive messages about Saudi Arabia and Egypt with negative content aimed at Iran and Turkey.
Since the Russian interference during the 2016 election, Twitter has taken efforts to more quickly identify and suspend bot accounts that boost divisive political messages. As Vox reported last year, the site identified 10 million separate tweets that originated mostly from Russia troll farms. The report noted that nearly all originated from the Internet Research Agency, the Kremlin-connected firm that led efforts to boost Donald Trump during the election and take aim at Hillary Clinton.
“The information released by Twitter, along with other reporting and analysis on the subject, suggests that the IRA, as well as the other Iranian-based operations, was equally focused on shifting opinions locally and abroad,” the report noted.
“In Russia, this meant distorting coverage of the Ukrainian civil war against Russia, as well as influencing debate about local Russian politics. The Russian trolls tweeted more heavily in Russian than in English.”
It was not yet clear if the current Twitter bot action that boosted Donald Trump’s attacks on the Russia report were connected to any specific country.